Interior nominee sees ‘clean slate’ on land in trust

Image from video of David Bernhardt’s U.S. Senate confirmation hearing.

Tribes that want to place land in federal trust, giving them Indian Country jurisdiction, are still waiting to see how the Trump administration will treat their applications. David Bernhardt, the nominee for deputy Interior secretary, suggests history won’t be any guide.

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“I’m excited about having a new slate to start with, if you will, not covered by the legacy of hundreds of years, or a hundred years,” Bernhardt said at his confirmation hearing.

Bernhardt worked as the top attorney at Interior during the Bush administration, when the government essentially stopped accepting trust lands. Bernhardt said that was in part due to lawsuits alleging the government mismanaged trust assets, but those suits have now been settled.

“Anything that happened during the Bush Administration regarding land into trust and trust responsibility, I don’t think you can look at those things without sharing a perspective of that particular litigation and the burdens that were imposed on the Department of Interior because of it,” Bernhardt said.

The Obama administration made land in trust a priority. In January, it approved an application from Alaska: the government accepted one acre in trust from Craig Tribal Association.

Bernhardt said at his confirmation hearing Thursday he knows of no plans to change the land-in-trust rules.

Between government jobs, Bernhardt worked as a lawyer and lobbyist. Among his clients were oil and gas companies. He also represented the state of Alaska three years ago, when it sued the federal government in a bid to conduct 3-D seismic work in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.